News ID: 321733
Published: 0929 GMT May 20, 2022

Age of remarkable civilizations

Age of remarkable civilizations
Hump-backed bull found at Marlik in Gilan Province

From the late second millennium BCE onwards, a series of very remarkable civilizations, often producing very distinctive works of art, sprang up in western Iran on the eastern side of the Zagros Mountains and to the western part of the Great Salt Desert also known as Kavir Desert.

These centers are often associated with the arrival in Iran of new peoples speaking Indo-Iranian languages. Dating from the period about 1,200 to 1,000 BCE is one of the most extraordinary and also one of the most enigmatic of these civilizations.

In Gilan Province, in the southwestern part of the Caspian Sea, excavations in cemeteries at places such as Marlik and Kaluraz produced richly decorated gold and silver vessels, vessels in the shape of hump-backed bulls, and stylized pottery figurines of human. The finds in these cemeteries testify to the extraordinary wealth of those buried there – one explanation is that the tombs are those of robber barons who controlled the lucrative East-West Trade Route that passed to the south of the Caspian Sea.

To the south of Gilan Province, in West Azarbaijan Province, is the important archeological site of Hasanlu, where a team from the University of Pennsylvania worked from 1956 until 1974 under the leadership of Robert H. Dyson, Jr (1927-2020). In around 800 BCE, or a little later, this site was destroyed by a fierce fire and thousands of artefacts were found buried in the debris together with the bodies of inhabitants who had not been able to escape the blaze. It is likely that Hasanlu was an important center of the kingdom of Mannaea, one of the petty kingdoms and tribal centers on the east side of the Zagros Mountains.

Much of our information about these small states comes from the written records of the powerful kingdom of Assyria in northern Mesopotamia to the west that between the ninth and seventh centuries BCE launched numerous campaigns into western Iran in search of horses, minerals and booty. From these we learn that among the small kingdoms in the Zagros region were those of Mannaea and Ellipi, sandwiched between Urartu to the north and Elam to the south and with Median tribes to the east.

Apart from Hasanlu, other Mannaean sites include Tappeh Qalaichi and Tappeh Rabat in West Azarbaijan Province. At both places, polychrome glazed tiles with designs that are derivative of Assyrian art were found, testifying to close contacts with Assyria.

Another important center is Ziwiyeh in Kurdestan Province, which became notorious for the alleged discovery in about 1947 of a bronze coffin filled with fabulous gold and silver objects.

Subsequent Iranian excavations have shown that Ziwiyeh was a flourishing fortified citadel in the eighth to seventh centuries BCE. The objects found at Mannaean sites, for example the glazed bricks and also incised ivories and pottery, show strong Assyrian influence, but at the same time local elements play an important role in Mannaean art. Inscriptions in the Mannaean language do not survive, if they ever existed, but Mannaean personal names in Assyrian and Urartian inscriptions show that the Mannaean language belonged to the Hurrian language family.

The kingdom of Ellipi was based in the provinces of Lorestan and Kurdestan. It is from this region that the very distinctive Lorestan bronzes come, in the form of horse trappings and standards, among other objects. Unfortunately very few of these canonical bronzes were found in scientific excavations, such as those at Baba Jan, an archeological site in northeastern Lorestan Province. Bricks or tiles with painted patterns as well as the distinctive buff pottery with red or brown painted decoration were discovered in in Baba Jan.

In the central Iranian Plateau were the Medes, who remain elusive. Median pottery is distinctive and at Tappeh Sialk, central province of Isfahan, bricks stamped with figural and geometric designs were identified as Median. This, and their evident contribution to later Achaemenid art, suggests that in due course a canon of Median art was established.



The above is a lightly edited version of a chapter of Epic Iran: 5,000 Years of Culture, written by John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, Tim Stanley and published by V&A Publishing. The photos originally appeared in the book.

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